Awaiting release for nearly a year, the based-on-a-true story Against the Ropes concerns boys club buster boxing manager Jackie Kallen (played here by Meg Ryan). It begins in 1972, when Jackie is an adorable child (Skye McCole Bartusiak), observing the action in her father’s boxing gym. One point here is to show her gift: she spots and accurately diagnoses the errors made by a struggling boxer. The other point is show what she’s up against, obviously illustrated when her father dismisses her outright: “You don’t belong here.”
The big meanie. Even as her Uncle Roy (the very struggling boxer to whom she offered advice) reminds her, “The world is an oyster and you’re a pearl,” dad is calling her a “midget with a head full of stupid.” Unsurprisingly, Jackie’s story is about triumphing over small-minded men. And they are all men, in the boxing world, which is only one of the many reasons that Jackie stands out so outrageously. As an adult, she will also take on and beat these men at their own game, by managing winning boxers and becoming something of a celebrity in her own right.
On its face, this sounds like a simple trajectory—much like the one established by Erin Brockovich, whose success reportedly inspired Paramount to greenlight this project—but it’s complicated by particular and pressing issues, namely, the ways that race, masculinity, and media shape expectations and possibilities in the boxing world.
Cut forward to “Cleveland, Present Day,” where Jackie is executive secretary for overbearing Cleveland Coliseum director Irv (Joe Cortese). He has her making coffee and taking the blame for promotional schemes that clients reject, but Jackie is determined. Supported in spirit by Irv’s receptionist Renee (Kerry Washington) and a local tv reporter, Gavin (Tim Daly), Jackie waits impatiently for her big chance. She gets it when she argues one night with snidely promoter Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub). Infuriated by her audacious, overstepping claims to knowledge, Sam offers her a losing boxer’s contract for a dollar. Ha! Jackie thinks, she’s got her foot in the door.
But now, she has to get this boxer to earnest work in the ring, no small task when she learns that he’s not only unprepared, but an addict. Jackie drives over to his apartment in the projects (bringing her one girlfriend Renee along, as Renee wryly observes, “for black-up”), where she finds that her boxer-for-a-buck is a crackhead, not exactly fit for training. As such things tend to happen in movies that rely on coincidences to get from Point A to Point B, at that very moment of disappointment and danger (a fight breaks out in the apartment), the boxer’s buddy Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) shows up and beats down the interloper, demonstrating impressive skills and, importantly, the fact that he’s already working out, as his remarkable musculature testifies.
Reasonably angry, distrustful, and full of himself, Luther brings all kinds of energy to the movie, as does Jackie’s decision to hire old associate and veteran corner man Felix (Dutton) in order to train the kid. Amid the requisite training sequences (jogging, sparring, heavy bag punching), Jackie also prevails upon Gavin to report on the story. Not incidentally, this story involves her. If the “projects survivor makes good” is old news in boxing, the white girl pushing her way into gyms, arenas, and all-guy offices is something of a bombshell.
This is a great story, even if it’s mostly reshaped from real life, with events and characters shifted to accommodate rising and falling action scenarios: among other changes, Luther is a combination character, based on several of Jackie’s boxers. It’s even better that the script, by Cheryl Edwards, focuses on the relationship between Jackie and Luther (one scene in particular is carefully touching, when Jackie finds him a new apartment, and he must confess that he has no experience doing his taxes or filling out leases).
As well, when Jackie becomes more dedicated to her own (admittedly exciting) media stardom than in her fighter’s career (except as this career furthers her own), the film suggests that she must come to terms with the very ambition and aggressiveness that have enabled her professional success as a liability. Put another way, she’s become as self-serving as the corrupt male blowhards she’s been railing against, and now, the film suggests, she needs to be a girl again. Not a bad thing to be, of course, but Against the Ropes doesn’t offer a sustained critique of gender stereotypes or capitalism’s collision with sports, especially as this collision is inflected by race and class prejudices and lack of opportunities.
On this tip, the film also lapses into easy boxing movie clichés, despite its occasional efforts to complicate said clichés. So, underdog Luther makes it to a championship bout, even as Jackie is learning her own hard lesson about loyalty and fairness. That this big fight and Jackie’s lesson climax at the same time, and happen also to push Felix—the trainer—quite literally out of the picture, to the point that she comes up with the best corner advice at the crucial moment, as Felix looks on, reduced to silence.